The Pentagon has begun training the first group of Syrians to fight Islamic State militants, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced Thursday.
“This program is critical and a complex part of our anti-ISIL efforts,” Carter said.
There are about 90 members of the first training class, Carter said. The training, taking place in Jordan, will take months.
Members of the force will be paid, but it was not clear how much, Carter said.
They will be provided air cover and possibly medical evacuation.
Asked if the United States would be responsible for war crimes committed by the force, Carter replied that they are selected and vetted for their adherence to law and will be trained to conduct themselves appropriately.
Identifying and vetting moderate members of fighters in Syria has proved difficult for the military. The Pentagon announced last year its intent to train and equip Syrians who could protect their communities from Islamic State militants, and eventually help achieve a political solution to the country’s civil war.
Fighting among forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, opponents of the regime and militants has devastated the country. About 220,000 people have been killed and millions more forced from their homes during the war, which has seen Assad unleash chemical weapons attacks on his own people.
In January, the Pentagon announced that it would deploy about 1,000 troops to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to train the Syrian opposition. But recruiting and vetting opponents who can be trusted has proved difficult. The Pentagon has lost dozens of trainers in Afghanistan to so-called insider attacks. It has taken pains to vet Afghan recruits more carefully and taken safeguards to protect against attacks.
Meanwhile, a U.S.-led coalition, without opposition from Assad’s forces, has mounted airstrikes against ISIL targets inside Syria. Bombing and missile strikes have killed thousands of militants, according to military estimates.
Members of Congress have pushed the Obama administration to escalate U.S. military involvement in the war. On Wednesday, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the ranking Democrat on of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, told Carter and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that he and several colleagues favored a U.S.-protected safe zone inside Syria for refugees.
Carter and Dempsey were non-commital on the concept. The zone, and presumably U.S. forces protecting it, would be targeted by Assad’s forces and ISIL militants, Carter said. Dempsey added that carving out such a space, likely by patrolling a no-fly zone, would require the Pentagon to shift troops, planes and weapons being used elsewhere.
SOURCE: USA Today – Tom Vanden Brook